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Attorney General John Ashcroft's appearance at a TV preacher's Washington gathering shows his continuing allegiance to the Religious Right and indifference to religious pluralism, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

At the session yesterday in the Cannon House Office Building, Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy touted his standard "Christian nation" viewpoint while introducing Ashcroft. The TV preacher quoted founder John Jay as saying America is "a Christian nation" and "as Christians we should prefer and select Christians to rule over us." Observed Kennedy, "We would have far less trouble I'm sure if we did."

The closed-door, invitation-only event was sponsored by Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Washington-based group that seeks to evangelize public officials and their staffs. Although Kennedy is less well-known than other TV preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, his Ft. Lauderdale-based ministry is equally extreme in its approach to politics and religion.

Kennedy, who campaigned for Ashcroft's approval during the heated Senate confirmation hearings, repudiated those who have criticized the attorney general's office prayer and Bible study sessions as a violation of church-state separation. "No such principle," said Kennedy, "is found in the Constitution."

Kennedy also argued that the nation's founders supported religious activities in government. He even claimed that Thomas Jefferson insisted that the Bible and Isaac Watts' hymnal be used in District of Columbia public schools. (Historians say the claim is bogus.)

Far from repudiating Kennedy's "Christian" version of America, Ashcroft took the podium to praise the Florida-based television preacher, noting that he watches Kennedy's show on Sunday mornings.

Church-state separationists were outraged. "Ashcroft's failure to repudiate Kennedy's bigoted version of America is appalling," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Public officials should be chosen because of their leadership skills, not their religious affiliation. America isn't a 'Christian nation;' it's a pluralistic democracy that welcomes persons of all religions and none. As attorney general, Ashcroft ought to reject any appeal for sectarian politics, especially when it occurs in his presence."

Instead, during the applause that greeted Ashcroft, the attorney general turned toward Kennedy and applauded him. Ashcroft then mentioned the trumpets that open Kennedy's TV show. Citing scripture, Ashcroft said, "You know the Bible says, if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for battle?"

Ashcroft said the trumpets on Kennedy's show are impressive but they are "second rate compared to you." He later told the crowd that "you ought to get college credit for listening to him."

Ashcroft also said, "Obviously, the Center for Christian Statesmanship and Dr. D. James Kennedy are a wonderful addition to the voices that need to be heard in the United States Capitol and in America." (Ashcroft received the first "Distinguished Christian Statesman" award from the Center in 1996.)

Said the attorney general, "The Proverbs tell us 'where there is no vision the people perish.' Thank you for bringing your vision to Washington D.C."

Kennedy's "vision," however, is quite extreme. For an overview of his religio-political agenda and a sampling of opinions taken from his 1994 book, Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search of Its Soul, check

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.